Rosemary Sutcliff Pauline Clarke - Essay

Pauline Clarke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rosemary Sutcliff has given us [in Song for a Dark Queen] a rounded, convincing and (very properly) rather frightening portrait of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, who led the tribes to the sack of Roman Colchester, St. Alban's and London. In the lyrical, loving, and doomladen tale of Cadwan the harper, she grows from a brave defiant infant to a proud unwilling bride, a happy mother and a vengeful widow, her private self always contrasted with her public, queenly role….

The Roman point of view, and the Legions' movements in meeting the rebellion, are recounted by young Agricola on his first service….

All Rosemary Sutcliff's well-known skills are here: the lovely descriptions of the seasons in a subtly prehistoric East Anglian scene …: the brilliant evocation of atmosphere, whether happy, foreboding, or sinister (as in the sacred grove, where the atrocious sacrifices detailed by the historian Dio Cassius are more subtly dealt with by this author): the assured narrative power in handling crowded and dramatic scenes, which pile up as this superbly exciting, albeit bloodthirsty story rises to its tragic climax in the battle: the sense of contrast between the "civilized" and the "barbarian", in their own and each other's estimation: the masterly telescoping of the passing years, the skilful indications of the underlying reasons for the uprising. With her usual confidence she describes Celtic ritual and the worship of the mother goddess: the choosing of the royal bridegroom, the marriage, the funerals, the corn dancing. Her sympathies are totally engaged, so that, despite her refusal to minimize any of the savageries of the British, the reader's are too.

In basing her treatment on the theory that the Iceni were a matriarchy she has surely added great force to Boudicca's thirst to avenge her dishonoured queenship and royal daughters: and there may be a Pictish parallel. But all that Tacitus says is: "In Britain there is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of armies".

Pauline Clarke, "The Power Behind the Throne," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3979, July 7, 1978, p. 766.